Photo by James Perkinson

The Politics of Color at the Strait Called Detroit

Essays

The primal brilliance of the color-scheme—aquamarine Sturgeon-Queen arising fierce and indistinguishable from the sun-shimmered waters themselves, in (visually) bombastic counterpoint to a burnt-rouge sun-rise sky—tags the eye with trance-invitation.

At the epicenter of industrialization, as an apocalypse of water engulfs a globe, color is the place where Spirit speaks politics. And it is especially artful color that intensifies that speech into prophecy and vision. In what follows I speak as a white male settler undergoing continual “schooling” and confrontation by people of color—Afro-diaspora and indigenous Native survivors of the history of supremacy and domination laminating the Great Lakes river bend known as “detroit” (“the strait”)—working skin tone by way of culture-code into a palette of resistance astonishing in its incandescence.

The brief send up sketched here will camp out on a singularly potent eco-mural, commissioned for a bridge buttress of the former Grand Trunk Railroad bed on Motown’s eastside (quite close to my home), that is itself the more comprehensive and profound expression of a “politics of place” that was given “outlaw” and focused articulation in a Highland Park (inside Detroit proper) water tower tag in 2015. The latter graf, etched overnight by two young Boricua and black “bombers” stenciling “Free the Water” beside a black fist, gave highly visible display to on-going grassroots resistance to draconian water shutoffs targeting low income residents of color in the city, initiated by the state-imposed Emergency Manager beginning in early 2014. In the event, the two artists faced felony charges after being caught by police (too long halting their descent from the tower to admire their work in dawn’s light!) and ultimately paid fines and did community service!

But it is the mural reproduced here that most powerfully conjures the confrontation of color. This commissioned piece (represented above) by the African-American member of the tagger-duo, takes the latest ferocity of a political refusal to capitulate to settler colonial domination back into its wild root.  Three Fires (Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi) and Wendet/Huron indigenous dwellers at this river-curve between the upper and lower Lakes, elaborated their cultures and lifeways in largely symbiotic modes of respectful exchange with their non-human kin and ancestors—foremost of which was the ancient sturgeon fish “elder” predating human arrival on the planet by some 200 million years.  Euro-colonial aggression (decimating the population for its isinglass “glue” fluids) within three centuries all but eliminated the great finned one from the basin, until (very recent) Native community efforts to re-populate the waters with this beloved relative.  

The primal brilliance of the color-scheme—aquamarine Sturgeon-Queen arising fierce and indistinguishable from the sun-shimmered waters themselves, in (visually) bombastic counterpoint to a burnt-rouge sun-rise sky—tags the eye with trance-invitation. The artist himself, William Lucka, is savvy in the assertion; the GM world-headquarters skyscrapers anchoring the Car-Capital’s downtown are relegated to a small cameo appearance in an upper corner—dwarfed by the pulse of throbbing color.   And the sign is serial in its significance.  The City is “reduced,” in a kind of reverse colonization, as the Waters of the Strait—twenty percent of what is available in fresh form on the planet—rise in revolt.  

Here is climate crisis in its most eloquent and irresistible genesis: water speech!  As an aroused beast of the depths!  

Jesus himself long ago insisted the Creature was “Living” in his “throw-down” beside the Sukkot altar in John’s gospel, when he ventriloquized Isaiah, offering the poor a “free river” coursing from Hermon heights through Jordan banks, rather than the version the priests pretended to privatize inside the Temple gates for a tithe and a take (Jn 7:37-40).  In Jewish prophetic grasp, water was Spirited and Alive only as long as it remained uncoerced by aqueduct technique or human touch—untampered Gift from “on high.”  

Today, after millennia of incarceration and piping, degradation and now bottling, this Living Bounty is raging in take-no-prisoners speech.  She speaks two main dialects. Storms and floods and sea assault when the Flow is shouting.   Wildfires like a physical mobilization of hell, when the Great Life-Giver goes silent and withdraws.  But so far, our objectifying and commodifying truculence is unable to listen. 

Capitalism in our day indeed seems monstrously intractable.  But billionaire tenure through this systemic obscenity of accumulation will have an expiration date—tendered by the biosphere itself, if not by social movement and political will. That so many poor are suffering in the meantime does not fall at the feet of Nature, but us.  It is “we” humans who have created the domination systems rendering so many of our kin vulnerable and expendable by abandonment and exclusion.  It is we, who have not yet resisted to the point of offering our own flesh in protest, who comply with the arrangements putting the marginal of our species on the altar of sacrifice (as a perverse “first fruits”)—in Yemen and Syria, in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, in the Congo and the Carolinas and Flint and Detroit.  And color today is the most significant coordinate delineating the travesty.  

It is no mistake that melanin now marks the populations of our species most at risk from the consequences of our imperial hubris over the last 6,000 years.  

Beginning in 1492, European colonialism in its myriad forms unleashed a 500-year onslaught on the darker-toned denizens of all six continents, quickly translating a Christian conviction of supremacy into the visual shorthand of racist discourse and extraction. We have scarcely begun to plumb the depths of the damage done—material and comprehensive to its burnished targets, spiritual and viral to its (supposed) pale beneficiaries.  

But the regime of white colonial arrogance itself camped out on a deeper racial conceit and hubris: the choice of elites in early states to elevate themselves and the human “race” in general (in urban settlement) as supreme over the rest of the biosphere. “Civilization” is the great misnomer of history—a supremacist fiction licensing genocide, enslavement, rape, pillage and plunder writ large, ever since it first appeared in Mesopotamian materialization around 3,500 BCE and began to aggress around the globe (as well as emerging independently in China, Egypt, and elsewhere).  

But that conceit and stupidity will not much longer maintain its fiction.  Nature, as Guy McPherson notes, “bats last.”  And indeed, here, I would undercut my own argument if I only championed human poetics in the key of color as the prime agent of hope.  The Lucka mural is magnificent in its blue-red bombast! But he is taking cues from wild predecessors.  And these ancestors of wave and fin, water and sky and soil that indigenous cultures are so insistent on honoring are yet evident in this mix.  Even here at the Strait!  I have but to gaze out my window.  

Big red leaf-tears have appeared on all the bush hedges framing the short walk to my coop townhouse at this Samhain juncture of seasons—harvest over, the offerings of plants to the sun given up in lush, swaying speech of the nose and tongue and eye—before the cloud sentinels of Cailleach roll in to enwomb the soil in snow-slumber and the future.  But these bush-beings!  Their color, a menagerie of red-orange, flaming in gentle weeping of passing: grief given its true emblem of respect and heart-fire-salute to every eye not yet colonized by the city or machine.  These are the real muralists of the day, the elder-artists of the bend called Detroit, the Ones who live their poetry with their bodies.  

I would write of spray-flecked walls in the center of de-industrialized blight?  Not without a first nod to what exceeds my own desire, my need to burn large in a human frame, learning my game of passion and tattoo from those who have marched through the epochs, schooled by sky, loved by rain, birthed by fungi and nitro-gift from lightning and earth.  The primal wall of inimitable blaze, the Ur-Tag of the ages, is this great Plant-Mystery that echoes the moon-phases and solar-fetish across the round belly of the only Mother we have. Ancient autotrophs!   Giving leaf and root for all else breathing!   You, who talked to Moses in red-orange tongue of summons—talking now to me, in autumnal resplendence before falling to earth, if I but listen.  All praise be!  

And kudos to the peoples who have themselves channeled this wild-authored color-insurgence—like indigenous cultures the planet over, black folks wrestling blue-notes into a polyphony of tone and tint uncontainable at the river bend, and a Lucka-shout translating street-anguish into primal eloquence on a concrete buttress.  This is what resurrection looks like beyond “museum-status” in a biblical corpus!  

We would resist neo-liberal austerity and water-privatization stupidity and climate-altering fossil-dependence?  Certainly! In the D—with street art and grass roots organizing and community gardening and law suits for affordability plans for water use and direct action against shutoff trucks.  On-going!  But our ultimate teachers are the elder creatures all around us, who—whatever else they do to try to survive—blaze with undeterred beauty, no matter their fate!  May we do likewise!

David Sánchez

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Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, partisan murals litter the landscape of Northern Ireland reminding all of the thirty-year civil war between Catholic and Protestant neighbors.

The Politics of Color at the Strait Called Detroit

The primal brilliance of the color-scheme—aquamarine Sturgeon-Queen arising fierce and indistinguishable from the sun-shimmered waters themselves, in (visually) bombastic counterpoint to a burnt-rouge sun-rise sky—tags the eye with trance-invitation.

Robert Smith

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Democratic Discernment and the Fate of Community Murals

Coming

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